Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom fall in love under a zebra-print umbrella in ‘Elizabethtown.’
Elizabethtown\r\nStarring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Rated PG-13.
In His Shoes

Kentucky is a blue state for everyone involved in Elizabethtown.


Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown was one of the big conversation pieces at the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago, and not in a good way. The movie received a poisonous reception when it screened there in a 135-minute cut, drawing adjectives such as “tedious,” “sentimental,” and “overlong” from reviewers. The version in our theaters this week is cropped by about 15 minutes, and while it needed to be even shorter, it’s not as bad as advance word might indicate. I’d still have to put it in the “loss” column, though, and ponder this troubling question: Has Cameron Crowe flamed out?

I don’t know the answer, but the main character of this film could relate to the question. Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a hotshot athletic footwear designer who’s taking a big fall. His latest line of sneakers, launched amid great fanfare, has been overwhelmingly rejected by the public. His company now stands to lose $972 million as a result. “Think about it!” says his sneaker-magnate boss (Alec Baldwin). “That’s so much money, you could round it off to a billion!” Drew goes home and is about to make a serious, though also rather funny, attempt at suicide when he’s interrupted by even worse news in the form of a teary phone call from his sister (Judy Greer), telling him that their father Mitch has died suddenly while visiting relatives in Elizabethtown, Ky.

The movie takes place during Drew’s mission to retrieve his father’s body, but it’s glaringly nonspecific about Mitch, which is odd given that it’s based on Crowe’s history — his own father died in Elizabethtown. The script never deals with what Mitch meant to his son or to the various Kentucky relatives who remember him fondly. There’s no catharsis in Drew’s journey, or any emotion at all for that matter, just a lengthy and ill-fitting coda during a road trip back home. You can’t help wondering if Crowe, who has drawn on his past to make generation-defining films, has simply run out of personal experience. That issue aside, we’ve already seen many movies about city slickers returning to their Southern roots (this year’s Junebug was a fine example), and this one doesn’t break any new ground. Crowe also squeezes surprisingly little dramatic juice from the rift between the Kentucky branch of the family and Drew’s Oregon-based branch.

That part of the film is only half the story, though. Drew also falls in love with Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant who cozies up to him when he’s the sole passenger on the red-eye into Louisville. Claire’s meant to be Crowe’s dream girl — sensitive, eccentric, chatty, confident, gifted with a teasing sense of humor and crushingly good taste in music. If any filmmaker has earned the right to romantic idealization, it’s surely the guy who created Lloyd Dobler and Penny Lane.

Unfortunately, this plotline falls flat as well, and it doesn’t jell with the movie’s other half. Dunst is too hard and brittle here; we never see any sort of vulnerability or soft spots that might make Claire seem like a real person instead of an all-healing salve for Drew’s wounds. At least Dunst projects some personality, unlike the guy opposite her. If Crowe thinks Bloom is the second coming of John Cusack, he’s backing the wrong horse. The Englishman is awfully pretty and handles the American accent well enough, but he’s strictly a cookie-cutter leading man with no distinctive features in his psyche, and the chemistry between him and Dunst is like oil and water. I’ll say this in Bloom’s favor — the film’s much better with him than it would’ve been with the actor originally cast in the role: Ashton Kutcher.

Maybe the most painfully disappointing thing about Elizabethtown is how empty it feels next to Crowe’s previous films, which teem with juicy supporting parts played by terrific actors. Those aren’t here. Baldwin has an amusing opening aria, and Susan Sarandon is consummately graceful in her one big scene as Drew’s mom, paying tribute to her late husband with a standup comedy routine. However, the Kentucky relatives are an undifferentiated mass of kitschy Southern charm (excepting Paul Schneider as a goofy cousin), and the movie wastes considerable supporting actors such as Greer, Bruce McGill, and Loudun Wainwright III. And what is Jessica Biel doing here, exactly?

Here I am saying the movie’s not so bad, then I go on about its flaws. That’s because its failures are much more interesting than what it gets right. The film is watchable and occasionally very funny, as when Drew takes Claire’s suggestion of a video for silencing a house full of unruly kids. There’s also a nice in-joke when My Morning Jacket shows up as a generic Southern rock band doing an obligatory cover of “Freebird.” Still, there’s nothing here to match the pure magic of the “Show me the money” scene from Jerry Maguire, or the “Tiny Dancer” bus ride from Almost Famous. To be sure, the movie falls short of the extremely high standard Crowe has set for himself. Even on its own terms, however, Elizabethtown is only an honorable failure.

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